Changing work, changing school

by John Watson

From Seth Godin:

Industry offered a deal to the worker:

Here’s a job. We’ll pay you as little as we can get away with while still being able to fill the job. We’ll make sure it’s easy to find people for this job, because we don’t want you to have much in the way of power or influence. …

In return, you’ll work as little as you can get away with. That’s the only sane way to respond to the role of being a cog.


When people talk about the need to adapt schools to changes in workforce needs, they usually focus on areas such as increasing use of technology, the need for collaboration, and similar skills.

But that misses the bigger picture.

The manufacturing-based and natural resource-based economy is receding into the past, but still echoes through our education system. That economy was based largely on showing up, producing a competent level of work for an expected number of hours, complying with the system, and in return getting a salary that could support a middle-class life.[1]

The analog in school is show up, gain a basic understanding of the material that will be on the test, don’t cause trouble, and in return get a grade that will let you move on to the next level.

In other words, do as little in school as you can get away with. That’s the approach of most students, particularly in middle school and high school.[2] That’s what leads to grades partially based on attendance, students asking “will this be on the test,” and a loss of interest in learning if the material won’t be tested.

But the biggest change in work, as we get close to the third decade of the 21st century, isn’t the spread of technology and the need for 21st century skills. The biggest change is the way in which the people who are successful[3] “own” their careers. They build skills that are valuable in their field, to themselves, employers, clients, and colleagues. They seek out opportunities, whether those opportunities are with the same employer, in the same field, or in a completely new area. The large majority of successful people are entrepreneurial in spirit and practice, even if they never start a company.

This is where the school system is failing. Not individual teachers, for the most part, nor school leaders. But all too often legislators, governors, and interest groups decide that the solution to a real or imagined problem is another curriculum requirement, another standard, or another test. Each one of those incremental steps removes school and teacher autonomy, and ultimately reduces student agency. A better approach would increase school and teacher autonomy, while creating better reporting mechanisms and increased transparency so that parents, students, and others could evaluate schools.

Factories and construction sites often have signs that track “number of days since last accident.”

Perhaps schools should have a sign that tracks “number of days since a student asked, “is this going to be on the test?”


[1] This is an oversimplification because it describes a system that benefited primarily white men, but the larger lessons still hold true.

[2] Fwiw, that was also me in high school.

[3] Success does not mean simply high salary; it means fulfillment in any number of ways.